Cultural Currents: Artist entrepreneurs as community leaders

Artist entrepreneurs bring unique skills and perspectives to town. Their contributions to community leadership add dimension, and to governance insure creative perspectives and problem-solving approaches bring unique solutions.

Band performs on streetCultivating entrepreneurs from within communities is one of many strategies encouraged by Michigan State University Extension to develop and sustain strong community identity and build economy. The artist entrepreneur brings a unique skillset and perspectives to town. Their leadership adds dimension and their participation in governance insures creative perspectives and problem-solving approaches can bring unique solutions. Throughout a community this level of participation ensures that artists and creative people are a part of making the community a unique place for residents and tourists alike.

Communities must seek out artists with the right mix of skills, experience and interests. All artists are creative but not all artists are entrepreneurial, and not all artists want to be engaged in a public way —say on the planning or zoning committee. An entrepreneur takes an idea and builds it – organizes it, manages it and grows it into an enterprise – usually with considerable initiative and risk.

Communities should want artist entrepreneurs engaged as community leaders. Like other sectors of the community the cultural enterprise also goes beyond business. Creative nonprofits contribute elements that make communities special. Arts and humanities councils, arts schools, community theatre and music organizations provide entertainment, offer training, engage residents and their products and services support other businesses and shape and enliven communities. Creative people working in business and in the nonprofit sector are essential parts of the whole community.

People in wagon at Friends of the Octogon Barn Annual Fall FestivalHealthy creative businesses and nonprofits can express – visually and literally – the core of what a community stands for. Their presence establishes your community as a destination—a special place.

Public leadership and infrastructure makes many things possible. These support systems are as important for the creative entrepreneur as they are for the retail merchant. Include creative people in your planning, networking, micro-loan and other business support programs.

Artists and creative people bring much to community development and sustainability. Artists are supreme organizers; they can conceive of an end product and proceed step by step to reach that goal. Arts products have a complex value; it is not only the end product but the creativity and process and skills that bring a creative enterprise, whether it is a product or major event, into being.

Artist entrepreneurs and creative people provide unique role models for other businesses, engage communities in unique ways, support and develop community artists, provide learning opportunities and bring unique perspectives and creative problem solving to community issues and planning. Build arts and creative elements into community planning and draw from the skills of creative community members in crafting and presenting your messages.

Edna Harbison, owner In the Woods Gallery, OntonagonThis article grew from a panel presentation for the Connecting Entrepreneurial Communities Conference (October 2012, Petoskey). Besides this author, panel members were:

  •           Leslie Donaldson, painter and director of Arts Council of Greater Lansing
  •           Nancy McRay, fiber artist and owner Woven Art, East Lansing
  •           Marty Scott, visual artist, writer and co-owner of Northern Michigan Artists Market, LLC, Petoskey

Julie Avery is a curator at the MSU Museum and Extension specialist for cultural community and economic development. Her recent focus has been developing web-resources to assist small and rural communities in planning and implementing heritage tourism

Photos: 1. Street musicians perform. 2. Friends of the Octogon Barn Annual Fall Festival. 3. Edna Harbison, owner In the Woods Gallery, Ontonagon, Mich. Photos courtesy Carol S. Huntoon, Heritage Tourism Initiative, and the MSU Museum

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